Country music gets a bad rap for narrow-mindedness—partially unfair, but sometimes deserved. Here are five albums that expand the genre's palette. Don't confuse them for alt-country—which had a strong run in the late '80s and early '90s and gave rise to worthy bands like Wilco. Rather, these albums constitute a sort of alternate country—or, more accurately, countries—where style takes a backseat to heritage.
Los Super Seven Heard It on the X (Telarc) Click
"We need more ethnicity in country music," noted one awkward Nashville Star judge to a Mexican-American contestant a couple of years back. But it's been there all along, especially along the Texas border, where pirate radio stations from the '30s onward broadcast a sonic hodgepodge that American airwaves shied away from. (Wolfman Jack made his name as a host on border radio.) The third album from this Latin-American supergroup expresses the idea that rock—and, by extension, country—flourished without borders, geographical or otherwise. It's a vision of country that can accommodate the tender Tex-Mex duet "Cupido," featuring Freddy Fender and Rick Trevino, "The El Burro Song," reborn as mariachi music, with a gilded vocal from Mavericks frontman Raul Malo, and John Hiatt's boogie-rock "I'm Not That Kat (Anymore)," with a guitar tuned to the sound of a rumbling motorcycle.
Shooter Jennings Put the O Back in Country (Universal South) Click
Jennings—son of Waylon and Jessi Colter—has spent years avoiding the family business by fronting a boozy Sunset Strip rock band called Stargunn and squiring a Soprano. Yet, it's not surprising, really, that his solo debut, from the lewd title joke on down, calls for a revival of the stripped-down, traditionalist Outlaw country that his father pioneered in the '70s. Jennings is playing to his strengths: He's far better at wide-mouthed rock yelping—the blues-inflected "Manifesto No. 1," or "Busted In Baylor County," a true-life tale of a minor legal tussle—than at lonely country laments. In between the jokes about weed, the whining about L.A. Scientologists, and the double-talk about "white lines," Jennings squeezes in enough shout-outs to George Jones (the perennial Nashville chart-topper) to soothe traditional ears. Even so, he still finds time to gripe, on "Solid Country Gold," how Music Row loyalists just "can't see the country for all the goddamned trees."
Shelby Lynne Suit Yourself (Capitol) Click
This is a return to Nashville, of sorts, for the onetime Music Row factory singer who fled a decade ago for the relatively cooler confines of first the California desert and later noncommercial AAA radio. Suit Yourself is a compromise between the old and new Shelby Lynnes—it was initially recorded at her Palm Springs home, and later polished, relatively speaking, with a band of Music City vets. They mostly stay clear of her ample, anguished vocals (as if to emphasize her independence, Lynne sometimes shouts directions midsong, as on "I Cry Everyday"). Sonically, the album is small and stark, a collection of roots-influenced pop delivered with seaside breeze—songs like "Old Times Sake" tread the middle ground between Loretta Lynn and early Carly Simon. Strangely, while this is exactly the sort of music that gets Norah Jones played on CMT (the MTV of country), it has made Lynne, who has a far superior voice (see "When Johnny Met June," a touching teardrop about the death of Johnny Cash) all but a country music pariah.
Cowboy Troy Loco Motive (Warner Bros. Nashville) Click
Nelly and Tim McGraw bridged the hip-hop/country divide last year with their Billboard-topping single "Over and Over," and they made it work by leaving their respective genre loyalties on the cutting-room floor. The black rapper Cowboy Troy, backed by Nashville wunderkinds Big & Rich, wants to test the proposition that country is a subject, not a style—a good idea, because, unlike the pioneering hick-hopper Bubba Sparxxx, the humbly skilled Cowboy Troy wouldn't last five minutes on rap radio. Instead, he patrols conventional country turf—looking at comely women ("Crick in My Neck"), coming up light in the pocket ("Ain't Broke Yet"), and the light of the Lord ("Somebody's Smilin' On Me"). Risky? Not really, but perhaps a fitting rebuke to Nashville's poor track record on integration. Maybe he'll even spur a Charley Pride comeback.
Larry the Cable Guy The Right To Bare Arms (Warner Bros. Nashville) Click
Potential good news for Cowboy Troy—for a few weeks this spring, the No. 1 country music album on the Billboard chart was also an example of country as a frame of mind, not a sound. Still, Larry the Cable Guy's not-quite-self-aware redneck comedy plays better to the red states than hip-hop will. His mentor, Jeff Foxworthy, is, after all, the best-selling comedian of all time. But while Foxworthy is genteel and anodyne, Larry is a bit cruder, trafficking in social fear (of the other, in all its myriad forms, from blacks to "Hollywood tofu-farting fairies") and self-loathing (in respect to NASCAR, Hooters). Don't be too quick to judge: Larry may take liberties with the mannequins at J.C. Penney but that doesn't mean he's not savvy. On "WWJD," he mistakes his own lumpy shadow for "a couple of black guys sneaking up behind me" to general guffawing, but the likes of Cowboy Troy doesn't unnerve him—Larry guests on Troy's album, an "Ebony and Ivory" that sounds like Music Row getting punk'd.